Walt Mossberg

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Choosing an iMac

There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers. Everybody has questions about them, and we aim to help.

Here are a few questions about computers I’ve received recently from people like you, and my answers. I have edited and restated the questions a bit, for readability. This week my mailbox contained questions about iMac configurations, the Zune’s sound quality and simple digital cameras.

We’re going to be purchasing an Apple iMac desktop in the next few weeks. Do you have any recommended configurations? We will be running Microsoft Word and Excel as well as playing music, organizing family photographs and using the Internet.

Apple separates the iMacs by screen size — 17 inches, 20 inches and 24 inches. As the screen sizes increases, the processor speeds and other specs also rise, although you can alter some of them if you order from Apple online. There are two 17-inch models, one with beefier specs than the other. All iMacs use Intel’s latest dual-core processor, the Core 2 Duo, with speeds ranging from 1.83 gigahertz to 2.33 gigahertz.

For the usage pattern you describe, even the base $999, 17-inch model would be fine, although I would suggest doubling the memory to 1 gigabyte. That upgrade costs $75, bringing the price to $1,074. Its hard disk, at 160 gigabytes, is plenty for the needs you describe, as is its low-end, but capable, graphics system, and its processor speed of 1.83 gigahertz.

If you think you might like to create DVDs of your photos, you’ll need to get at least the beefier 17-inch model, which costs $1,199. That model already has 1 gigabyte of memory. Like the larger-screen iMacs, it can record DVDs, while the base model can only record CDs. It also has a slightly faster processor, at 2.0 gigahertz, and a better graphics system.

If you want bigger screens, you’ll have to spend more. The 20-inch model costs $1,499 and ups the hard disk to 250 gigabytes, in addition to increasing processor speed to 2.16 gigahertz. The 24-inch model costs $1,999 and has a fancier graphics system but the same hard disk and processor as the 20-inch model.

In your lengthy review of the Zune digital music player, you didn’t say much about its sound quality. Was it good? Was it the equal of the iPod?

As I noted in the review, to my ears, the Zune sounded about the same as the iPod. Its sound is quite good. However, the Zune has fewer equalizer settings than the iPod, and I found its earbuds to be less comfortable than the newly improved standard iPod earbuds.

My wife wants to take up photography as a hobby, but she is a devout technophobe. Could you recommend a good quality camera that is simple to use?

Different people have different opinions on what constitutes “simple,” and several brands of cameras are fairly easy to use. But I’d suggest you consider one of the Kodak EasyShare models.

I am thinking of buying a new computer with Windows Vista installed. How can I transfer the files on my current PC to the new one without losing any?

Vista will have a built-in file transfer utility, but I haven’t tested it and thus can’t say if it’s any better than the lousy file transfer “wizard” in Windows XP. In the past, I have recommended a product called Detto Intellimover. I haven’t tested it for a while, but I assume it will have a version that works with Vista.

* * *

Because of the volume of email I receive, I can’t routinely answer individual questions by email, or consult on individual problems or purchasing decisions. I read all questions I receive and select three each week to answer in the column.

Write to Walter S. Mossberg at mossberg@wsj.com

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